Mack and Abby had only been married a few months when the conflict started. A second marriage for both, they had faced each other at the altar with new hope and visions of a bright future together. What could possibly go wrong?
Seven months later they were finding out. The love they had for one another was being tested on every front. Susan, Mack's teenage daughter, quarreled increasingly with Abby. Abby's son, Jake, an honor roll student, was now failing subjects and cutting classes. The picture-perfect family Mack and Abby had envisioned began to crumble in front of their eyes. They wondered if their marriage had been the right thing in the first place.
When you consider the profile of the blended family, it's no wonder that parents and children face some big adjustments. The stepfamily originates out of loss, either from death or divorce, with the focus of this article on the later. Two fully developed, often diverse sets of traditions occur in stepfamilies. Furthermore, the parent-child bond predates the couple's relationship making discipline a major source of contention. Family roles and rules may be blurred. Parents and children in blended families may lack legal relationship. One parent lives elsewhere, thus children are moved between two households. In some marriages, one partner may become an instant parent with no prior parenting experience.
How then can the stepfamily work through the challenges and take progressive steps toward health? Four keys can unlock the door and start families on the path to success.
Key One: The couple needs to build a strong marriage. More than any other factor, the love modeled by the couple will breed security and self-esteem in the children. Building and maintaining a growing marriage should be priority number one. Healthy couples honestly confront challenges as they arise while keeping things in perspective. They have the kids for only a few years, but they have each other for a lifetime. They must not allow children's issues to overwhelm the couple relationship. The most vital thing the couple can do is keep the lines of communication open. Speak the truth in love (Ephesians 5:15). Respect each other's opinion. Don't compare the mate with a previous spouse nor fall prey to spouse bashing. Keep communication positive and solution-focused. Decide what isn't working and discover what is. Then form a plan of action. This may require the help of a Christian counselor.
Activities such as daily devotions and weekly date nights are important in every marriage, but especially vital in a remarriage where spouses are stretched thin by the obligations of two households and the tension that often ensues. Many spouses reserve fifteen minutes at the close of every workday as "couple time." In successful remarriages, couples learn to manage anger toward former spouses. Instead of directing the anger toward their current mates, they set boundaries. They feel the anger, but choose not to use that anger to damage their mates, kids, ex-spouses, or themselves. They also decide early on how much they will share about their former spouses. Refusing to communicate when hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, they establish space for themselves as well as their mates until they can more objectively discuss issues. Church attendance, accountability partners, and friendships with other couples provide incentive to get through another day as a stepfamily. Laughter makes life look less threatening and helps the children feel more secure in their parent/stepparent's love for one another.
Key Two: Couples need to maintain a spirit of cooperation between households. For the sake of the children, households need to be as amiable as possible, placing the kids' needs above feelings for the ex-spouse. There should be no negative messages about the birth parent. Parents should ask questions such as, How do we maintain contact between child and birth parent who lives elsewhere? How often? (In many cases, the courts have already decided this). How often does parent and ex talk? In person? On phone? Is there anything said at one house that can make it easier on the other household? When parents work together, the kids are far less likely to play one against the other because all parents involved in the children lives present a united front.
Carla Barnett, licensed professional counselor, mother of three children and stepmom of two, suggests that gatherings where kids can see their parents getting along contributes greatly to their security and well-being. A great benefit is when all parties involved put bitterness behind and participate in some shared activities, like skiing, camping, or holiday dinners.
A parent must not retaliate if and when an ex exhibits abusive speech. A parent can help the kids see that the other parent is not walking in God's love. Parents need to listen to their kids, then respond briefly, yet honestly. A parent doesn't have any control over what the other parent is saying, but he can control his own responses and defuse the flame on his end. Praying with the child for the ex can soften sour attitudes.
Carla shares that the best advice she gives a stepfamily is, for the sake of the children, let go of bitterness, exercise forgiveness, and walk in love.
Key Three: The couple needs to establish an effective order of discipline. Agreeing on discipline in the stepfamily is one of the toughest issues the home faces. David Mortellaro, clinical director of Associates in Brief Therapy, says that it is crucial to develop a solution-focused approach. When a stepfamily walks into his counseling office, stressed over kids, his first questions are, What are you doing now? Is it working? If not, why? What can you do that does work? Together, the couple discusses the possibilities. Dave encourages compromise, recognizing the many adjustments a stepfamily must make. Often the birth parent who has custody of the children ends up playing the heavy while the ex who only has weekend visitation rights offers recreation. One frustrated father acknowledged that he saw his kids so seldom, he wanted to create happy memories of fun times together, rather than discipline them the entire weekend, even though he admitted that they needed it.
Unraveling issues and then working on one at a time is critical for change to occur. Each spouse must clarify his position and come to a place of agreement on which issue to focus on first. Then the solution (game plan) can be put in writing and signed, holding spouses accountable to follow-through with the given assignment until they meet again with their counselor. Dave acknowledges that if couples are faithful to work on strategies, change can take place. If they don't, they develop a pattern of improving and regressing. As Dave says, No matter what the circumstances, real solutions begin with a willingness on the part of both for lasting change.
Sometimes the birth parent and child have spent years together before the remarriage. In this case, the parent will often turn to the child for directives. The parent/child bond is so tight, the couple has trouble establishing a strong bond. Again, it is critical to protect the marriage, since this is the foundation for a strong home. Couples who keep the marriage from crumbling are more likely to generate kids who eventually come on board and cooperate. The children will most definitely test all parties involved to discern any loopholes they can slip through.
Natalie Gillespie, author of The Stepfamily Survival Guide encourages parents to find common ground in parenting styles and discipline. She urges parents/stepparents to schedule a time to sit down in a neutral setting and discuss the children's issues, activities, and rules of conduct. Parents who have the child's best interest at heart will reinforce the other parent when the child is in his home. Furthermore, she encourages parents to always seek the other parent's side of the story when a child shares a complaint. Gillespie, a stepmom herself, maintains that ‚children who have boundaries that do not shift from home to home are the happiest and most secure children in both homes, (78, Gillespie, The Stepfamily Survival Guide).
Charles Rife, LPC with Total Life Counseling, Inc., admits that it takes time and patience on the part of all to see kids in line with the new game plan. Parents must be firm fence posts because the cows will get out where the fence is the weakest. The birth parent (regardless of sex) is the one who speaks, lays out directives, while the stepparent is the cheerleader. When consistency is achieved, in time both parents can take turns calling the plays. Birth parents living in other households must work with primary caregivers to hold kids accountable to new standards. That works best for consistency. In the beginning, the birth parent has the moral highroad. As the stepparent builds trust with the child, the contract can move beyond just the birth parent. As the couple progresses, all parties can sign a family values sheet which is then posted on the refrigerator and in the kids rooms. Parents can direct the child to the values sheet when an infraction has occurred and insist on clear consequences for the violation. Together they decide on rewards for good behavior and punishment that fits the crime. Charles believes that chores are a great way to give a time out and encourages parents to praise the child when a job is done well. Kids need to know parents are aware of the rules and expectations and will reinforce them in the same manner.
Key Four: The couple may need to get help. Typically, because stepfamilies have so many diverse issues, it takes a third party to help unravel and map out a plan of action. This help can take the form of books, marriage/parenting seminars, pastoral care, support groups, and in more difficult cases, professional counseling. Seek Christian counselors who adhere to God's plan for the marriage and home and will base solutions on the Bible.
Natalie Gillespie offers several good suggestions for support in her book, The Stepfamily Survival Guide. She recommends locating or starting a class for stepfamilies at your church. Announce a stepfamily function, such as a picnic in the park or game time, in your church bulletin. Host a stepfamily web page where families can chat, place announcements, or ask questions. Start a prayer chain, Bible study, or babysitting co-op among stepfamilies in your local church. Gillespie maintains that stepfamilies need all the support and fellowship they can get, because so much is going against them from the get-go. (206-208, Gillespie, The Stepfamily Survival Guide).
Other good resources for the stepfamily include, Ron Deal's (director of Successful Families) book, The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family; Kids Hope, a divorce recovery seminar led by Gary Sprague; Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade, by Dr. James H. Bray (psychologist) and John Kelly; the Boundaries series of books, audio products, and seminars created by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend; and the sixteen-week parenting course by Gary Ezzo titled, Growing Kids God's Way.
Employing the above four keys to success in your stepfamily can help you move beyond those first years of intense struggle to a growing family relationship that stands the test of time.
Eileen Hinkle Rife is the author of the Born for India trilogy (OakTara). She and her husband, Chuck, conduct marriage seminars in the States and overseas. She is currently working on a gift book of cute kid quips inspired by her six grandchildren. www.eileenrife.com
© Eileen Rife 2005, This article first appeared in Psychology for Living, Dec. 2005